At curtain time Bernadette Peters dons a frumpy maternity smock and quilted slippers, then for two hours onstage crochets potholders, makes puppets out of peanuts, extols the virtues of Dale Carnegie and, in the words of her incredulous co-star, has “orgasms over blenders.”
As Sally in off-Broadway’s new comedy Sally and Marsha, Steve Martin’s longtime girlfriend could hardly be accused of playing to type. But Peters was so eager to portray a South Dakota housewife transplanted to Manhattan that she even agreed to the distinctly rural salary of $210 a week. “It’s costing me to do this show,” sighs Peters, who has temporarily moved from her L.A. duplex to a $2,500-a-month East Side sublet. “But it’s worth it.”
The critics weren’t so sure about her choice of vehicle, a kind of feminist Odd Couple, but they did rave about Bernadette. She was drawn to the play in part by the fact that not only the cast but also the director, Lynne Meadow, and writer, Sybille Pearson, are female. “In rehearsal we’d take lipstick breaks, and once we even stopped for a makeup sale nearby,” Bernadette giggles in her trademark Betty Boop voice. “It was like being in a girls’ dorm.”
In Hollywood Peters has found little to laugh about of late. Pennies From Heaven, in which she was paired with Martin, disappeared into box office oblivion. Heartbeeps, starring Peters and Andy Kaufman as lovesick robots, short-circuited critically and commercially. “Do I go into a funk about this? No!” insists Peters. “You can’t go out and shoot yourself.” She’s consoled by good feelings about her role as a conniving floozy in the film version of the Broadway hit Annie, scheduled for release in summer. She’s also due to dance in the upcoming CBS special Baryshnikov Goes to Hollywood.
Bernadette has been hoofing since the age of 3. Born Bernadette Lazzara in Ozone Park, Queens, she was nudged into show business by her stagestruck mother, Margurite. Her dad, Peter (the inspiration for her stage name), drove a bread truck. By 5, the pouty-lipped little girl with saucer eyes was on TV in The Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour. By 13, she was playing Baby June in a road company production of Gypsy. “I’d go to auditions and see other kids binding their chests to look younger,” recalls Bernadette. “I decided I would never do that.”
After graduating from a private high school in 1966, Peters dazzled the New York critics in musicals like Dames at Sea, On the Town and Mack & Mabel. Close friend Carol Burnett first saw Bernadette onstage in Dames. “She’s fragile and wonderfully sexy,” says Burnett, “like a Jean Harlow or a Marilyn Monroe. But,” she adds, “it’s an innocent kind of sexy,”
Later Peters conquered Hollywood, where her Gibson Girl looks helped to land her a role as the screwball seductress in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie. She later played opposite Richard Crenna in the CBS sitcom All’s Fair, and Martin cast her as a voluptuous cosmetologist in his 1979 film The Jerk. “Steve and I have your basic man-woman relationship,” reports Peters. “He’s not a pie-in-the-face kind of guy. We’ve been together four years, so something must be working.”
As soon as Sally and Marsha ends its Manhattan Theatre Club run at the end of this month, Peters will begin rehearsing a new nightclub act for the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Although she will likely earn six figures a week on the Strip, Bernadette insists that she’s eager to return to the New York stage—”maybe in Shaw’s Saint Joan or something by Shakespeare.” Don’t laugh. Claims Burnett: “She could do anything—except maybe King Lear.”